I am heading into my middle age malaise with a shock treatment of physical exercise. I was getting creaky and weak and maintaining a belly bulge. To arrest the decline and with hopes of reversing it, I latched onto judo. It was a pursuit of opportunity: My boys were taking lessons with a great teacher, and the teacher agreed to work with me.
I recruited my friend Chris to join me. This is a net positive but is not without pain. Chris is a fitness nut. The guy runs miles and miles for fun, works out almost everyday, is fearless in the face of physical agony, and seems to have a genetic need to push himself. He also has a nasty competitive streak.
Our instructor, Markus, is 28, speaks perfect English, is a black belt and on the Swiss National Judo team. At first glance, he looks fit enough, but when you see him in action, when he demonstrates a roll, a flip, a hold, a jump, a choke, you get a whole new appreciation for what 4 hours of hard-core conditioning every day for the last 18 years will do. The man is an apex predator. Some horrible and beautiful cross between a tiger and a shark. It is beautiful because his motions are unbelievably fluid, he balances cat-like, and his strength astounding. While I could barely make it half-way up a rope dangling from the high dojo ceiling, Markus goes up and down five times with only his arms while holding a medicine ball between his feet. He flips his body up and over, then lands on his hands, walks upside down on his hands, rolls, cartwheels, turns and pops up, smiling, because for him this is just a walk in the dojo.
And it is horrible, because to be in his clutches is to be a piece of raw meat in the grips of a wild carnivore. He demonstrates seemingly simple moves, a basic tug on the gi and push to the side, but the strike happens so fast and furiously it is like being in a shark’s mouth: I am shocked, thrashed about and quickly dispensed with. He has shown me how it should be. Now my turn.
I am tentative and sloppy. Unbalanced. My legs go the wrong way, my body flexes incorrectly, I don’t get the hold right.
Markus demonstrates flips and holds, and it is more of the same.
Even the basic exercises, somersaulting across the mats, is a lesson in humility. My body doesn’t bend very well, I roll too much on my neck and not enough on my shoulders, and the front rolls get me nauseous and horribly dizzy (I get car sick, after all).
In any one-and-a-half hour session, I am thrown by my partner Chris on my back and side, choked, arm-locked, and flipped head-over-heals. And must stand up and have it done to me again and again.
Of course, I get to do it to Chris, but my motions are not fluid, I am tired, and feel out of my element and uncoordinated.
And what would judo class be without physical conditioning? Markus has an entire encyclopedia in his brain of creatively exhausting routines. Pick up the 90 pound dummy, run it across the dojo, drop it furiously onto the mat, hand it off to Chris, repeat 10 times to exhaustion. Frog jumps back and forth, leaping like a manic frog up in the air, down, up again and higher, 40 feet across the dojo. Ten times, which is the endpoint where your brain just clicks your body off because it knows you should not be moving anymore. The last round I look more like a very old and wet slug rather than a bouncy frog. A slug about to throw up.
There are partner exercises where I have to jump over Chris in different ways, as he lies down, as he stands halfway up, back and forth, over and over again. Then Chris’ turn. Then my turn.
The first few lessons left me feeling like I had been hit by a bus. I had trouble getting up from bed, pain walking, sharper pain breathing. My body was covered in bruises from being thrown to the mat in new and exciting ways, and from being choked and held down. The sessions left me exhausted.
They still do, but I am definitely in better shape. But the thing is, I love the sessions but absolutely hate them, too. Because I am scared half the time. I hate being flipped. I despise being thrown. And yet I must submit my body to my partner for him to practice, and for me to learn, too. The endurance exercises recall wind sprints in middle school soccer. The coach says run, he blows his whistle and you run. Over and over again. Until you are sick with the effort.
I am old enough by many years not to have to listen to a coach. But I am doing this voluntarily, as one does with a personal trainer, and so obey because that is what I am asking for.
While I recover from the endurance drills, the fear remains. Every week, I do things over and over again that ignite in me an unfamiliar and unshakable visceral fear. Being thrown does it. Being tripped and brought to the mat is always unpleasant. I hate launching into the air and coming down into a roll. I do get better, and less fearful, but there is always a new move to take its place.
The fear is an odd thing to confront. In my life, I can avoid most things that would cause fear. I have no more social awkwardness, and no need to extend myself into things that I know I don’t want to do (no bungee jumping or sky-diving, thank you.). And yet, every week, I do these things, over and over again, that ignite this fear. I do learn that I can overcome it and come out on the other side perfectly OK. I often need to stop thinking about a move as that trips me up, to just visualize and do it, and this is a good lesson in itself. And I am able to continually put myself through this because I trust my teacher. I knew Markus was good when I watched him with my boys, and I suspect teaching 40-something year-old men may be an even bigger challenge than teaching 7-year-olds. Markus, like most good teachers, is patient and encouraging. There are no failed attempts as long as I try. And each time I do something, there is something he can point out that will help me do it better. Also, he has a sense of humor and no need to be macho. He loves judo, is amazing at it, and loves teaching others. He pushes Chris and me but only to our limit. As a life lesson, he also reminds me the value of having a good teacher, and being a good teacher for others.
For me, in middle age, judo brings me outside my comfort zone. Far out, in fact. And that is a wonderful thing. It frames the rest of the week, pushes me physically and mentally, and gets me out of my routine and comfortable existence. The flip side of comfort can be boredom, apathy and malaise. So for middle age, I highly endorse putting a little safe and productive fear in your life.
Now I need to take some Advil. My muscles are killing me.